When no-doubt superstar Zion Williamson was drafted out of Duke in 2019, shoe companies engaged in a bidding war for his services. The practice of brands battling over endorsement deals for star players has been going on for many years and it all started back in 1984.
That year, Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina and wanted to represent German shoe company Adidas. Adidas, however, didn’t want him. Here is the story of how Nike landed the superstar and made billions.
Adidas Ruled The 1970s
The NBA players of the 1950s and 1960s largely wore sneakers that were only mildly different than any other kind of shoe. While they didn’t mark up the court, they also didn’t provide much stability or performance.
That started to change in the 1970s, due in part to Adidas’ Top 10. This sneaker became the shoe of choice for a who’s who of the NBA’s best players. Among the hoopsters to sport the shoe were Adrian Dantley, Bob Lanier, and Marques Johnson.
Nike Was A Running Brand
Nike was founded by Oregon track runner Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman. The running ethos was strong throughout Nike’s history and its most famous sponsored athlete was long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine.
The brand also paired with other top-flight track athletes like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carl Lewis. There was a tennis shoe as well that was endorsed by Ilie Nastase. Nike, though, was also looking for an athlete to build its basketball line around.
Adidas Was Cool Outside Of Sports
When it comes to selling shoes to the public, athlete sponsors are a big help. But that’s not the only way to market a shoe. Any brand making clothing hopes that their goods will be seen as cool.
And Adidas was certainly a cool line during the 1980s. Much of this was due in part to the brands association with hip-hop. Rap group Run-DMC were such big fans of the sneakers that they released a song called My Adidas.
Adidas Also Had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In the early 1980s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was finishing up maybe the greatest career in NBA history to that point. The superstar center played for the Showtime Lakers, one of the coolest teams in NBA history. He also wore Adidas shoes.
Kareem’s association with Adidas began all the way back in 1971. The German brand signed Abdul-Jabbar to be the first athlete endorser ever of a basketball shoe. Unlike the high tops of today, Kareem preferred a low cut shoe and the Adidas Jabbar was born.
It Was Easy To Fall In Love With Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan spent his three-year career at North Carolina on the top of the world. The team won the National Championship in 1981. Jordan followed that win by making All-NCAA First Team his Sophomore year and the Player of the Year Award his Junior year.
He somehow went 3rd in the 1984 Draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. That didn’t make him any less of a prospect, though. He wasn’t only a phenomenal player, he also exuded cool.
And Jordan Wanted To Rep Adidas
This seemed like an open and close deal. Jordan, one of the best prospects in years, wanted to sign with Adidas. And seeing dollar signs, plenty of Adidas reps were on board with working with the shooting guard.
The higher-ups at the German company, though, didn’t want to sign Jordan. All these years later, the reason is still kind of weird. Despite standing at 6-6, the new Chicago Bull was deemed too short to rep the brand. Adidas management preferred taller athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nike Was Thrilled To Land Jordan
Adidas’ lack of interest in Jordan was a boon for their competition. Converse attempted to woo the shooting guard, but considering the brand already had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird repping them, the youngster didn’t know where he’d fit in.
Nike offered exactly what Jordan was looking for. Not only would they design his own signature shoe, but he’d also be the main superstar of the brand. Nike, which was growing fast, also promised Jordan innovative design.
The Jordan Sneakers Made A Star Of Tinker Hatfield
Nike promised Jordan that the sneakers designed for him would be like nothing he’d ever seen before. The original designers on his first sneaker were Peter Moore, Bruce Kilgore and a man named Tinker Hatfield.
From then on, Hatfield and Jordan would be joined at the hip. The designer would be the lead on Jordan models 3-15 and would also work on other shoes for Nike. He designed the original and very popular Air Max in 1987.
The NBA Bans The Air Jordan I
Back when the first pair of Air Jordan’s came out in 1984, they looked way different than any other shoe. There wasn’t just one color for the new shoe, but 4 varieties and they weren’t approved by the NBA.
Commissioner David Stern had a rule where each shoe worn by players in the league had to be at least 51% white. The Black and Red Jordans had almost no white on them and weren’t allowed. This only served to make them more popular with fans.
Adidas Nabs Patrick Ewing
While Adidas struck out not signing Michael Jordan, they had the opportunity to redeem that decision just one year later. Patrick Ewing was a game-changing prospect coming out of Georgetown and he landed on the New York Knicks in the World’s number one market.
Adidas, with its love for especially tall players, inked Ewing to a deal. The first signature shoe for the center was the Ewing Rivalry which debuted in 1986. The Ewing Attitude first appeared in 1987.
The Playing Field Gets More Crowded
As Adidas and Nike continued to battle it out for the league’s sneaker supremacy, Converse began to fall by the wayside. Reebok, however, started to make a big impact on the basketball scene.
The competing brand started to catch up to Nike and Adidas by signing stars like Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. Reebok also had a massive hit with its Pump series of shoes. The Pump received the 1990’s version of a viral moment when Dee Brown pumped them up in the NBA Dunk Contest.
The Jordan Brand Grows As He Takes Home Titles
The Air Jordans were a hit from day one and became the most popular basketball shoe on the planet. With its clever marketing campaign, Nike continued to push the shoe into the American consciousness.
Only one thing was left for Jordan to do, win a title. He strung together three of them in a row, in 1991, 1992 and 1993. Each year he won the title he did so with a brand new pair of Air Jordans on his feet.
The Jordan XI Becomes A Legendary Sneaker
For reasons that are probably only really known to him, Michael Jordan left the sport of basketball in his absolute prime. The basketball legend spent the year of 1994 playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox AA team.
That didn’t stop Nike from releasing the Jordan XI signature sneaker. The XI, which came out during his baseball career is widely considered to be the best Jordan’s ever made. The sneaker goes for more money than any other pair on the secondary market.
Adidas Lands The Next Jordan
In the mid-’90s, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant went to the NBA straight from High School. Adidas quickly inked the pair of up and coming superstars. Signing Bryant was a significant coup for the company.
It didn’t take long for Bryant to become a star for the new Showtime Lakers. Adidas produced a number of signature shoes as the superstar rocked LA. The shoe brand, though, lost him to Nike in 2003 when the competitor gave him a $40 million deal.
Jordans Continued After His Career Ended
Michael Jordan retired for the 3rd and final time after the 2003 season. For most players, when their careers end, the sneaker deals end as well. That wasn’t the case for Jordan as Nike wanted to keep producing the best selling shoe.
The first shoe released following the shooting guard’s retirement was the AJ XIX. As the years went on, Jordan continued to have more and more control over both his Jordan Brand and the designs of the shoes.
Adidas Hitches Its Wagon To Derrick Rose
Adidas suffered big time after they didn’t sign one Chicago Bull in Michael Jordan. The company decided to not make the same move again with another Bull. Derrick Rose inked a $185 million deal with Adidas in 2012.
The deal hasn’t exactly worked out the way the brand would hope. Rose, who won the NBA MVP Award in 2011, suffered a devastating knee injury the next year and has become more of an above-average player than an NBA superstar.
The Air Jordan Gets Its 30th Edition
Signature shoes have been a part of the NBA all the way back to 1971 when Adidas produced a pair for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Over the course of their career, a player may get 4 or 5 signature shoes.
But Michael Jordan is no ordinary player and the Air Jordan is no ordinary shoe. It has been over a decade since the shooting guard retired and the shoes still sell like hotcakes. In 2016, Nike produced the Air Jordan XXX.
Adidas Is Now Working With The Beard
While Nike has pretty much won the war, that doesn’t mean Adidas isn’t still landing their share of NBA stars. In 2015 the company signed James Harden to a $200 million contract. At the time, the deal paid Harden almost as much at the Rockets did.
Unlike some of their other athlete deals, this one has been a slam dunk for Adidas. The sweet-shooting lefty has continued to ascend winning the MVP Award and being a perennial contender for the honor.
Athletes Continue To Flock To Nike
Nike, thanks in large part to Michael Jordan, won the sneaker wars. The brand pulled a power move in 2003 when they signed the league’s biggest star, Kobe Bryant, away from Adidas.
Today’s players grew up idolizing the Chicago Bulls superstar and rocking Air Jordan sneakers. This has given Nike a special leg up on signing today’s biggest stars. The brand features an incredible roster of stars which includes LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Zion Williamson.
Adidas Soldiers On
Back in 1984, Adidas made the curious decision not to sign Michael Jordan and this has potentially cost the company billions of dollars. But no company can be defined by the biggest mistakes it ever made.
Adidas has also made some very impressive moves since then. The company is still active in sports but has also stayed close to its hip hop roots. The brand has released a number of best selling shoes with rap artists like Kanye West, Pharrell and Snoop Dogg.